Justifying Language Teacher Cognition Research

I am currently at the University of Aarhus teaching a PhD course on language teacher cognition research and our discussions there stimulated this month’s blog. For those new to this topic, teacher cognition research studies the unobservable dimensions of teaching and teacher learning – constructs such as beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, thinking, decision-making and emotion – and how these relate to the process of becoming, being and developing as a teacher. A short article introducing this field of research is available here and a detailed bibliography here.

One fundamental question teacher cognition research needs to address clearly is ‘why is it important to understand what teachers know, believe, think and feel?’ Today it is not enough to study, for example, teacher beliefs, for their own sake – a more concrete reason is needed. And for this reason I am critical (see Borg 2015) of papers which increasingly describe teacher cognition without any ulterior purpose or sense of how such insights might be of value. It can often be, though, difficult to provide a convincing answer to the ‘why’ question above, so let’s consider some examples.

In Zheng & Borg (2014) we examined teachers’ cognitions and practices in relation to task-based learning and teaching (TBLT). It was easy to justify this study because TBLT was a central idea in the English curriculum in China and teachers’ interpretations of it had clear implications for their implementation of the curriculum.

One of the participants on the Aarhus PhD course is studying teachers’ beliefs and practices in relation to differentiation. Again, justifying this study is straightforward because official curriculum documents for the teaching of German in Denmark specify that differentiation is expected of all teachers; understanding how teachers interpret and implement this idea, then, is very relevant to making sense of how they follow curricular guidelines.

So where an idea is central to policy but teachers’ understandings of it are unstudied, it is easy to justify making it the focus of teacher cognition research.

One of my PhD students in Norway (see Hestetræet 2012) is studying teachers’ beliefs and practices about vocabulary teaching. In this case the justification lies in three intersecting factors: an abundant theoretical and methodological literature on L2 vocabulary teaching, the status of vocabulary teaching as a fundamental aspect of L2 classrooms, and the general absence of research which has examined how teachers teach vocabulary and the beliefs that underpin their instructional choices. These are the same arguments that underpinned my early research on teacher cognition and grammar and my more recent work on learner autonomy.

So, if we are able to argue that an issue (a) is characterised by a large literature (b) is a fundamental activity in L2 teaching and (c) has not been studied from a teacher cognition perspective, a case can be made for examining teachers’ beliefs, knowledge, thinking or feelings in relation to this issue.

A third case where teacher cognition research can be justified is where teachers’ practices are not aligned with what is expected or considered optimal. For example, if it is observed that in L2 classrooms very little oral interaction takes place in the target language, then examining teacher cognition about target language use by teachers and students could provide insight into current classroom practices.

Teacher cognition research is also important in the context of teacher education and professional development. In teacher education, examining student teachers’ prior knowledge and beliefs can inform the design and delivery of pre-service courses; in professional development contexts, teacher cognition research allows us to understand if and how knowledge and beliefs change – i.e. what kind of impact professional development is having (see for example Borg 2011).

So there are different ways in which language teacher cognition research can be justified:

  • to understand to what extent and how policy (or an innovation) is being interpreted and implemented;
  • to examine widely discussed aspects of L2 teaching about which teachers’ cognitions remain under-studied;
  • to make sense of gaps between current teacher practices and what is considered optimal or desirable;
  • to establish a baseline of prior cognitions which can inform the subsequent design of teacher education courses;
  • to evaluate the ongoing and summative impact of professional development.

Many studies of teacher cognition are not justified using such arguments. Sometimes they limit themselves to the ‘gap’ argument – ‘we know little about teachers’ cognitions about X’ (without establishing why X is an important issue) – or the contextual argument – ‘teacher cognition about X has not been studied in my country’ – but neither of these alone suffice to build a convincing case.

If you are doing research on language teacher cognition, what is the justification for your study? What other convincing kinds of justification can we add to the list above?

Posted in research, teacher cognition | 5 Comments

Process and Product in Teacher Research

I’ve just returned from a very interesting assignment where I worked with a Ministry of Education which is promoting and supporting professional inquiry among English language teachers in primary and secondary schools. Teacher research is one form of professional inquiry that is being promoted in this context and one recurrent theme in my discussions with teachers there was the value of both process and product in teacher research.

The issue can be framed quite simply as follows: when teachers (not just in this particular context but more generally) study their own work (and communicate the inquiry to others) attention to the product of the inquiry (i.e. the results) too often overshadows that given to what teachers learn through the process (e.g. about themselves, their students, teaching, learning, collaboration and professional learning). As a result, teacher research is often seen to be successful only when it generates positive measureable results – e.g. evidence that teaching in a particular way leads to improvements in student test scores. This is a limiting way to view the purpose and value of teacher research and it is worth thinking about why teachers often bring this perspective to the study of their own work.

One powerful factor will be teachers’ existing notions of research, notions which will often be reinforced in the educational community more widely. My own research over the years has shown that teachers commonly associate research with experimental and statistical inquiry that leads to significant and generalizable results. In many contexts, as soon as teachers hear the word ‘research’, as in teacher research or action research, a whole set of prior understandings are activated which immediately dispose teachers to adopt a product-oriented approach to studying their own work and to downplay the value of what is learned through the process.

Institutional expectations can also play a role here. School leaders may communicate to teachers the expectation that teacher research will generate results which can be applied more widely in the school to enhance the effectiveness of teaching and learning. Professional inquiry can contribute to institutional growth, but the expectation that the outcomes of a (short) classroom study will provide the definitive evidence that shapes school policy is unrealistic and places undue pressure on teachers who feel they have to come up with some ‘significant’ results.

A further factor that may frustrate our efforts to get teachers to reflect more openly and deeply on the process of professional inquiry is a drive to showcase success rather than to consider in broader terms what might be learned from teacher research (even when interventions do not have the hoped-for results). In such contexts, the process of teacher research will be valued less than the results it generates (and the results themselves will only be valued if they provide evidence of ‘success’). Yet teacher research can support professional learning in ways that extend way beyond specific research findings.

I am in no way suggesting that results do not matter in teacher research. What I am arguing against is an exclusive, often premature and unwarranted focus on results and greater recognition for the fact that the learning that teacher research produces goes beyond the actual ‘findings’ of a study. In practical terms, then, in promoting attention to process in teacher research it helps if:

  • expectations (teachers’ and schools’) are managed throughout the process regarding the nature and implications of any results that will be obtained
  • technical concerns (e.g. to do with research design) are not allowed to obscure attention to the teacher learning processes that teacher research stimulates (teacher research does need to be rigorous though)
  • the criteria against which the quality of teacher research is to be viewed (e.g. by teachers and their schools) are made explicit and include prominent reference to processes (e.g. the quality of learning teachers experience) not just results.
  • teachers’ prior understandings and experiences of research are made explicit and discussed early on to establish a platform for teacher research that is not exclusively experimental and quantitative
  • reasonable time is allowed for teacher research so that pressure to achieve results through short interventions bracketed by pre- and post-tests is avoided
  • teachers are motivated to do teacher research and recognise its professional and pedagogical value; if teachers do teacher research reluctantly it is more likely that the product (i.e. completing the exercise) will matter to them more than the process
  • teachers are introduced to alternative ways of doing teacher research rather than assuming the work must involve an intervention whose impact is studied quantitatively
  • teachers are encouraged to reflect on the different kinds of learning they experience during teacher research in addition to their results and to give space to such reflections when they share their work.

Measures such as these will encourage teachers to focus not just on the product (the specific research findings) of their work but also to consider the broader kinds of learning they derive from the process of doing teacher research.


Posted in professional development, teacher research | 2 Comments

Presenting Research at a Conference

I recently went to another conference, this time in Cappadocia. I’d heard about the fantastic landscapes there but was not prepared for how spectacular they actually are. An hour sitting in the sun drinking Turkish coffee with some friends and overlooking this view was a great way to relax after my plenary (on ‘Critical issues in professional learning’).

Conferences are a good professional experience in so many ways, not least for the networking opportunities they provide (this time I even met two language educators from Slovenia, where I now live). Observing how others present always provides learning opportunities too. One area of potential learning that conferences generally fail to address, though, is the development of the presenter. We do not become better presenters simply through repeated practice – we need feedback on that experience (this applies even to reflective individuals who are adept at self-evaluation). Unfortunately, for many presenters the experience of talking about their research at a conference involves planning and delivery but no post-experience feedback and reflection (perhaps beyond supportive words of congratulation from friends and colleagues). This model does not support speaker professional development. Without awareness of how we might present more effectively, the style of our next presentation is likely to be very much like the last. I am reminded of this gap at every conference I attend. The question, then, is there anything that can be done about it?

One option is for conference organisers to create feedback mechanisms within the programme so that the audience can provide comments on the sessions they attend. This would need to be kept quick and simple – delegates are not going to provide detailed comments on every session they attend. But perhaps one comment under ‘Worked well’ and one under ‘Think about’ at the end of each session and placed in a box on the way out of the room might be feasible. Speakers could even organise this themselves.

Speakers can also solicit feedback by providing their e-mail address at the end of the talk and explicitly asking the audience to send them any suggestions they think would help them in future presentations.

Speakers can, prior to their talk, also find a trusted (but sufficiently critical) colleague and ask them to attend and make some notes on the talk. These can be discussed afterwards, perhaps over a coffee. Or, at the end of the talk, the presenter might ask someone in the audience if they could sit down with them for five minutes to discuss the presentation (choosing wisely here is important though). Another option is for speakers to arrange for their talk to be video recorded; this can then be reviewed by a colleague at a later date, followed by a discussion with the speaker.

For these processes to be productive, presenters need to want and be open to feedback. Those providing the feedback also need to understand the importance of being specific and constructive in what they say (some useful advice on providing feedback generally is available here).  Feedback need not be complex; for example, a very common problem amongst novice and experienced presenters alike is too many PowerPoint slides with too much text on each; making speakers aware of this issue and how it impacts negatively on a presentation can make a significant difference to future performance (much advice on the use of PowerPoint generally is available on-line). And, of course, feedback should also allow for positive issues to be highlighted too – perhaps before areas of improvement are discussed. It’s important to note too that feedback is not just for novices; even accomplished presenters can benefit from thoughtful feedback.

There is of course much that we as presenters can do before a talk to improve its quality and the 20 tips available here and the 10 here are useful in that respect. My earlier blog on conference presentations at http://tinyurl.com/p6pgzm6 is also worth revisiting. However, supportive and constructive feedback after a talk is an essential part of developing as a presenter, and it would be good if conference organisers considered ways of creating opportunities for this and speakers made getting feedback a specific part of their strategy when they present at an event.

Do you have any thoughts and experiences on this issue and in particular on how speakers can create or be given opportunities to reflect on and learn from their experiences of presenting at a conference?

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Action Research

Cambridge English have for several years now been actively supporting action research for English language teachers. In Australia, their action research scheme has been run in collaboration with English Australia since 2010; in 2014, the Cambridge English-English UK action research award scheme was also launched. Six teachers participated in the first year of the UK scheme and last week the second year kicked off last year with eight new participants.

Action research is not a new idea; its origins can be traced back many years to the work of Kurt Lewin in the 1940s. Australia, in particular, has a strong tradition of educational action research going back some 30 years  (see, for example, the work of Kemmis & McTaggart) and this is evident too (especially through the work of Anne Burns) in the field of English language teaching. The basic idea in action research is that professional growth and better quality educational provision can be achieved when teachers (individually or collaboratively) engage in cycles of systematic classroom inquiry. Issues of interest, puzzles, problems and challenges are first identified, changes to practice are made in response to these and the impacts of these changes are then examined, leading into another cycle of inquiry. Practice is thus fine-tuned over time. Various diagrams are available which illustrate the cyclical nature of action research.

I was at a conference recently where action research was dismissed as being an unrealistic activity to expect busy teachers to engage in. So the first point to make is that action research is but one of many professional development options available to teachers and in many cases it will not be a suitable option – so no one is (or should be) suggesting that all teachers should be doing action research. Unfortunately, action research is sometimes promoted (by Ministries or teacher educators) without sufficient understanding of the kinds of conditions that need to exist for it be a productive experience; in such cases the outcomes will inevitably be negative. However, where the conditions are conducive, then there is no doubt that action research has significant transformative potential (read about one teacher’s experience here). I have been writing about the necessary conditions for a number of years (here’s an early article on this topic) and recent experiences on both the Australia and UK action research schemes mentioned above are providing further evidence of what makes action research successful. Some key ingredients are:

  • motivated teachers
  • institutional support
  •  on-going expert mentoring
  • access to resources
  • time
  • structure
  • realistic goal
  • an extended time-span (months rather than weeks)
  • opportunities to share outcomes (orally and in writing)

Some of these conditions, though, need to be qualified. For example, ‘time’ does not mean that teachers need to be given a significantly reduced workload to do action research – that is never really going to happen. Action research can be to a certain extent integrated into what teachers normally do, but some additional time will always be needed – in some projects I have worked on, for example, this has been one hour a week. And ‘access to resources’ does not mean that action research involves copious amounts of reading; some awareness of key sources of relevance is desirable but action research is primarily a practical activity and reading should support that and not take on a life of its own. Teachers typically do not have access to subscription-based journals, but plenty of good quality material is freely available on-line (I have compiled some here).

At the IATEFL conference in Manchester this year I will be talking about the first year of the Cambridge English-English UK action research scheme. Participants on the scheme were very positive about the experience and while this is rewarding for everyone involved I would also like to look more closely at the issue of continuing impact: several months after the end of the scheme, what do the teachers say about its lasting impact on them, their students, colleagues and institutions?

Some resources to follow-up here:

Reports from the Cambridge English-English Australia action research scheme : Issues 44, 48, 53 and 56.
A chapter called ‘What is action research?’ from this book
A booklet called ‘How to do action research in your classroom’.
Some chapters in this collection also look at action research.
And a new book ‘International perspectives on teacher research’ will  be available in March 2015.

If you have been involved in action research – as a participant or a facilitator – please post a comment about your experiences.

Posted in professional development, teacher research | 8 Comments

The Benefits of Attending Conferences

I’m writing this month’s blog to accompany the publication of an article that has just appeared in ELT Journal. The full text of the advance access version of the paper is available at http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/ccu045?ijkey=u7svXbp4n4j0WIz&keytype=ref (this link takes you to a pdf of the paper – if you are taken to a subscribers-only page, check that the link is not broken).

The research the article draws on was carried out for a project commissioned by the British Council and which was motivated by one key question: what are the benefits to teachers of attending international ELT conferences? Although attending conferences is generally seen to be a positive developmental activity for teachers, published empirical analyses supporting this assumption are scarce; I was in fact not able to identify any existing studies of relevance. As I note in the article, it is not difficult to find claims about the benefits of attending conferences, but what I was asked to do for this project was to collect evidence that might (or might not) back up such claims. As you will see from the article, the project was positive in its conclusions, highlighting a wide range of ways in which teachers felt they benefited from conference attendance. However, the study also makes recommendations for extending these benefits further through systematic support before and after conferences, especially for those with less experience of large international ELT events. The need for more, larger-scale research of this kind is also noted.

Methodologically, the study was an exciting challenge; the whole project had to be completed in two months but the time allocated to the project during this period was actually the equivalent of 10 days’ full-time work. This included designing the study, drafting, piloting and finalizing the questionnaire, defining the population, administering the questionnaire, identifying interviewees, conducting the interviews, analysing all the data, and writing the report. It is difficult to capture in a written report (which is necessarily neat and linear) the dynamic and complex manner in which the project unfolded, but logistically there were many challenges, not least scheduling appointments for interviews across different time zones. Securing a reasonable response rate to the questionnaire was also a challenge given the tight schedule and here reminder/thank you e-mails before the first and last deadline more than doubled the number of responses received when the questionnaire was first sent out. More than two reminders probably starts to feel like harassment, but well-timed and appropriately written (e.g. not sounding desperate or overly-forceful) reminders can have a major impact on the response rate to on-line surveys. And because it is not normally possible to send reminders only to those who have not responded, these reminders should always thank those who have already replied.

This project was also a good example of the facilitative role that technology can play in our work as researchers. The questionnaire was administered via the web-based SurveyMonkey service (other similar services are available – e.g. zoomerang, surveygizmo), while the interviews were conducted using Skype phone calls (I used Skype and to call interviewees on their mobile phones). Connections were generally clear, the costs were very reasonable (just under £60 for just over six hours of calls from Europe to mobile phones in the Gulf– roughly 17p a minute) and the calls could also (with permission of course) be recorded (for which I used the add-on called MP3 Skype recorder). Given the geographically-dispersed nature of respondents, without the support of the technology it would not have been feasible in the time available to access so many participants. Of course, technology can also exclude participants; for example, those who did not check their e-mails regularly or who were not comfortable with on-line surveys or telephone interviews were less likely to contribute; however, on balance, the context studied was one where technology was sufficiently well-embedded to justify technology-mediated research methods. The relative merits of on-line and paper-based surveys has been widely discussed and Nulty’s 2008  article provides a good introduction to this topic.

Please do read the article using the link above – I’d be interested in your reactions. If you have attended conferences, do you relate to some of the conclusions the study reaches about the benefits of such events to teachers? Are there additional benefits you’ve experienced but which did not emerge here? And would it be naïve to ignore that sometimes the main attraction of an international ELT event is overseas travel and a few days away from work? Let me know what you think.


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